According to a 2013 Barna Group study, of the 41 percent of American men and women who self-identify as Christians, only “14 percent emulate the actions and attitudes of Jesus.” I find that statistic both sobering—because so few seem to take God’s call to holiness seriously—and curious—because why would we not want to become like Jesus when true spiritual transformation improves every aspect of our lives, including how we age?
A Tale of Two Women
Before my husband and I got married, he lived in a second-floor apartment owned by an elderly woman. Throughout the day, he could hear Mabel singing as she puttered around beneath him. Anytime he needed affirmation or encouragement, he would walk in her always-unlocked door for a visit. Mabel was deaf because she contracted the measles in her 20s and had been unable to bear children. Additionally, she spent her last 10 years as a widow. Her life had not been easy, and yet she embraced each day as a gift.
Like Mabel, Mary was another woman we knew who also lost her husband prematurely. Unlike Mabel, she had birthed and raised two sons, both of whom had done well in their careers and in their marriages. Not infrequently, Mary expressed anger and bitterness toward her deceased husband, her daughter-in-law, and her neighbors for (in her opinion) failing her. Where my husband always walked away from Mabel’s feeling encouraged and full of joy, he emerged from Mary’s drained and grouchy.
Neither of these women were teachers or theologians, yet together they taught me more about aging than any book or sermon ever has. Both Mabel and Mary attended church, prayed, and read the Bible. What differentiated their spirituality was that Mabel actually incorporated what she heard and read into her day-to-day life. She did not count herself a Christian simply because of her upbringing but because, to the best of her abilities, she chose to take the gospel seriously. She was one of the 14 percent.
Exactly how does emulating the actions and attitude of Jesus impact how we age? When we decide that following Christ is what we most want out of life, our world gets turned inside out and upside down. In a sense, we go off the grid. Rather than pursuing the American dream, we pursue peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (). We realize giving sacrificially is actually more fulfilling than accumulating stuff. We begin to forgive as a lifestyle, which allows us to learn from the past but not be shackled to it. As we choose the way of the Cross, we gradually transform into wise, loving, and grace-filled women.
Breaking Through Emotional Barriers
Transformation is a process that doesn’t happen effortlessly or quickly. At the beginning of my relationship with Jesus, I formulated two long-term goals: I wanted to defeat the persistent fear that seemed to pervade my life and I wanted to love well. Thirty-three years later, I continue to work on these two goals.
I come from fearful stock. I learned how to gasp long before I started saying “mama.” Growing up, I never heard my parents apologize, nor did I learn what it meant to forgive. None of us have perfect childhoods, but when you are raised in a home that lacks authentic spirituality, there’s little hope or redemption to balance out the pain and confusion.
I survived adolescence by staying busy. When I wasn’t playing sports, I worked. Because I am an incredibly sensitive person, I had to shut down emotionally. By the time I celebrated my 18th birthday, I had the emotional EKG of a cadaver. As I packed up for college, I breathed a sigh of relief.
Leaving home allowed me to lower my internal barricade by a few inches. That was all Jesus needed. Since 1979, I have been repeatedly admitting my brokenness and need—hoping, expecting, and actually seeing God bring healing to me. God has faithfully been making me new. I don’t need to work all the time now. I’m more patient. My emotions aren’t locked up, which means I cry—perhaps too freely. And I think I’m actually learning how to love.
Living More Like Jesus
These changes did not happen to me. I am different because I wanted to be more like Jesus and less like the broken, cynical, driven woman I was. I am different because I chose to believe the Bible: to confess my sins, to forgive those who wounded me, to pray for the sick, to love my enemies. I’m not the same person I was 33 years ago or even 5 years ago because, like Paul, “I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling [me]” (Philippians 3:14).
Many of us believe that how we age is dependent upon our income, our education, the strength of our 401(k) plan, and our health—all things we think we can, to some degree, control. Obviously, those factors do impact aging, but the deeper truth is there’s actually little we can control other than how we reorient our ships in the midst of life’s storms. Will we, like the disciples, fret and fear as the boat tosses on the waves? Will we turn back for the port and drop anchor? Or will we tighten the life vests, set the compass, and continue to sail?
When Mabel died, the number of visitors to the funeral home might have led a passerby to assume she was a dignitary or socialite. In keeping with her life, folks shared stories about the uniqueness of her laughter, her propensity for jokes and ice cream, and the sparkle in her eyes. It was a celebration of a life well lived by a woman who knew how to love. There are many tangible things I hope to accomplish before the Lord calls me home—I want to swim in the Mediterranean Ocean; I want to publish a book; I want to learn how to play the cello. But mostly, I want to be like Mabel—because Mabel was like Jesus.
Dorothy Littell Greco uses words and images to help folks find transformation through Jesus Christ and see the beauty in everyday life. She currently lives outside Boston with her husband and two of her three sons. You can follow her via Facebook or by visiting her site: DorothyGreco.com.